Sep 15 2008
Hyperbole aside, social networks are causing a change in our society. The very concept of ‘privacy’ has undergone more mutation in the last five years than it has the last 50 years combined. What my generation took for granted and are stressing about is apparently something young adults in college take for granted, even if they don’t understand the repercussions of the change. And as always, change isn’t necessarily good or bad, it’s just something that is.
While waiting for a plane flight home last Friday evening, I picked up a copy of this month’s Scientific American. This was a special issue, titled “Will Technology Kill Privacy?” To me, this is one of those topics that if you’re not concerned/scared, then you’re not paying attention. I can honestly say that every article in the magazine was worth taking the time to at least skim to get the gist of the topic and at least half of the articles were worth taking the time to read beginning to end. But the one article that I read that really caught my attention was “The End of Privacy?” by Daniel Solove. It highlights how easily information flows into and out of social networks and how little concern many younger people place on this flow. It also talks about how little most users of MySpace, Facebook and other social networks understand this.
Then over the weekend I read a Computerworld review of a CareerBuilder survey concerning employers and social networks which basically points out that employers are paying more attention than ever to what potential employees post to social networks. What surprises me is not that employers are researching potential employees social networks, but that the number isn’t higher than 22%; if I was an employer, I’d not only be looking at the social networks of potential employees, I’d be seriously considering making a corporate policy to do an annual review of current employee’s social networks. While this seems a little strange coming from someone who considers themselves a privacy advocate, I also believe that once you’ve posted information to a social network, you no longer consider it private so neither should I. I do have a couple questions about the CareerBuilder survey, like what industries were included in the survey and how much of a difference that makes?
Careerbuilder has some good suggestions for potential job seekers, which basically boil down to “don’t put anything on your social network you don’t want a potential employer to see”. It’s amazing how few people actually realize that what they put on their Facebook page can be seen by anyone in the world and what the repurcussions can be. Not only can putting the wrong picture on your page prevent you from getting you a job, it can lose you a job you already have; over the last few years there have been multiple cases of people losing their job because they posted inappropriate pictures or commented on the great party they went to when they’d called in sick for their shift that day. Again, if you’re posting something on Facebook for the world to see, don’t be surprised if your boss considers himself part of ‘the world’. I’ve always wondered if any of my managers take the time to read my blog, listen to the podcast or follow my twitter stream. Which is why I’m more than a little careful with what I say and write, though if you know me, what I say face to face isn’t all that much different from what I tweet and write.
The final social network story that caught my attention was about researchers who see social networks as the next big attack vector for malicious code. I’ve been more concerned about the problems with social network code since I saw the “Satan is on my Friends List” presentation at Defcon; it’s a bit of a wakeup call when you go to a talk at Defcon and see your own picture as part of the presentation (Nathan and Shawn had done impersonated some folks in Twitter, and I’m one of the people who fell for it). It’s becoming very clear that as hard as they might try to make it safe, the fact that social networking sites are allowing end users to post code to the site is a huge security hole. No matter how hard they try to sanitize the code and make it safe, it’s a difficult balancing act between letting the users do what they want and preventing them from doing bad things to other users. This is one of the reasons you’ll never find me clicking on a link to a MySpace page and rarely checking my own Facebook account, let alone looking at someone elses.
Social networks aren’t bad, at least not any more than any technology on the Internet. But they do have the potential to be misused and abused, just like nearly every other technology ever created. The problem is that we’ve undergone such a quick adoption rate that very few people have paused to understand the repercussions of sharing information that used to only be available to a few of their friends and family. Few people understand that the pictures and anecdotes you’re sharing with your friends across the country are also potentially being shared with millions of people around the globe.
I’m not going to argue against using social networks; I use Twitter extensively, I blog, I podcast, and I use other social media a fair amount. What I will argue is that most people need to put more thought into what they’re posting on the Internet. If you’re posting something to the Internet, take a moment to think about this question: Would you be embarrassed if your mother/father/significant other found it by accident? If the answer is yes, then make sure you’ve made the information private. Or better yet, don’t post it at all; a number of social networking sites have accidentally disclosed information that the users have marked private over the years. It’d be a shame to lose your dream job because that picture of you at a friends party holding a bong suddenly came to light.